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EPISODE 32: The Secular Creed
How should we respond when we see lawn signs that tell us what the people in their house believe - especially when some of the things they state go against what the Bible teaches. Rebecca McLaughlin has written a helpful book to answer that important question that matters.
The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims by Rebecca McLaughlin (2021)
In this provocative book, Rebecca McLaughlin helps us disentangle the beliefs Christians gladly affirm from those they cannot embrace, and invites us to talk with our neighbors about the things that matter most. Far from opposing love across difference, McLaughlin argues, Christianity is the original source and firmest foundation for true diversity, equality, and life-transforming love. Purchase your copy.
10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin (2021)
Backed by state-of-the-art research, personal stories, illustrations, and careful biblical study, this book doesn’t dodge tough questions. Instead, it invites teenagers to ask their hardest questions about Christianity and to find surprising, life-giving answers. Purchase your copy.
Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation by Thomas Tarrants (2019)
A dramatic story of radical transformation, Tom Tarrants shares his journey from violent clansman to pastor and advocate of reconciliation. His story demonstrates that hope is not lost even in the most tumultuous of times. Purchase your copy.
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman. I'm delighted today to have as my conversation partner Rebecca McLaughlin. Rebecca, welcome to Questions That Matter.
It’s great to be here, Randy.
I should inform our listeners Rebecca has written several really great books. Her first book, Confronting Christianity: Twelve Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion, won the Book of the Year award for Christianity Today. Then, she adapted it for a teen audience, Ten Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity. She's written a new book called The Secular Creed. That's going to be the topic of our conversation today, but I want to let our listeners know about Rebecca's Website. She says right at the start of that: “Two things have always fascinated me: the power of words and the message of the gospel. I love exploring the message of Jesus with broken people (all of us), and I long to be part of the rediscovery of the Christian faith as an intellectual movement.” Oh, how I love that purpose statement. It does need to be a rediscovery, doesn't it?
Yeah. I think one of the odd things that's happened over, I suppose in the last couple of centuries, is this idea that Christianity is anti-intellectual, or at least unconcerned with the life of the mind. And I see why we've got there. I think we've partly got there because we have been concerned to make clear that the gospel is simple and accessible to a young child or somebody with a learning disability. It's not that the message, that the fundamental message of Jesus, is complex and highfalutin. At the same time, the idea that Christianity doesn't have anything to offer when it comes to the hardest questions, the most rigorous intellectual pursuits, is to completely ignore both the words of scripture and the last 2,000 years of Christian history. We sometimes act as if either of those things are permissible, but I like to remember that Jesus calls us to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and that He’s not content with.
Well, you said that you “long to be part of.” I think you've given us some tools that are really very, very helpful, so I'm really grateful for that. And I want to talk about this recent book, The Secular Creed. The subtitle is “Engaging Five Contemporary Claims.” And you're wanting to help think deeply, to go past the slogans that are usually on those lawn signs or in the windows, slogans like, “Black lives matter,” “Love is love,” “The gay rights movement is the new civil rights movement,” “Women’s rights are human rights,” “Transgender women are women.” You go right after the really tough issues, but you explore them really well. Let's start with the title. Why did you call it a creed? Why is it the secular creed?
Well, I don't know about your neighborhood, Randy, but where I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the spiritual wilds of the Northeast, the yard signs that are common in this area begin, “In this house, we believe that…” and then there's a list of claims that usually starts, “Black lives matter, love is love, women's rights are human rights,” and then there seem to be a sort of grab bag of two or three other statements that vary from sign to sign. It could be, “Science is real,” or, “Water is life,” or, “Kindness is everything,” or, “Diversity makes us stronger.” And so that sign itself positions those beliefs as a creed. “We believe.” I don't think deliberately referencing the Christian tradition of creeds, beginning, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” but actually playing a similar role of saying, “Okay, guys, these are the core tenets of our moral beliefs.”
And what I want to say in the book, or I was attempting to say is, number one, that the very soil in which those signs are planted, the sort of moral soil in which any of those claims has a chance of growing, is actually Christian soil. All of those claims, whether or not we agree with them from a Christian perspective, and the book tries to have a sensitive approach to which pieces of which claim we do and don't affirm. It's not just a straightforward yes or no in many cases. Actually, each of those claims depends on what seem today to be self-evident moral truths, like, “All human beings are fundamentally morally equal,” or like, “The rich and the strong and the powerful don't have the right to trample on the poor and the weak and the marginalized,” or that women are fundamentally equal in status to men, et cetera. And all of these things, of course they seem like just basic moral common sense to us today, actually, if you look historically, are specifically Christian beliefs. So, it's kind of an irony there about the soil, so to speak, in which those claims are planted.
And then I think there's a real danger for us, as Christians, to look at a sign like that and either think, “Okay, I know, for example, that the history of white evangelicals, and I'd consider myself to be both white and evangelical, have treated our black brothers and sisters. I know about the history of injustice, and I've been told that in order to affirm the equality of black men and women, I must also affirm gay marriage for believers and transgender identities, et cetera. And so, I'm going to take that whole sign and hammer it into my own yard, either literally or metaphorically.” So, some Christians do that.
On the other hand, there are Christians who look at a sign like that and say, “Okay, I know there are some things on that sign the Bible doesn't affirm, and so I'm going to block my ears to all of it. Knock it so to speak, like swing a mallet at it and knock it all down. Any time somebody wants to come and talk to me about racial justice, for example, I'm going to block my ears because I know that that's all of a piece with these other things that Christians can't affirm.”
And what I'm wanting to say in the book is actually, no, we need to look at each of these claims in the light of Scripture, and we need to recognize first and foremost that, as clearly as scripture points us away from gay marriage for believers, it actually points us towards racial equality and justice. So, these two things have got tangled up together, and I'm trying to look at how they've got tangled up and how we detangle them as Christians.
Yes. Detangle is a good word. You use that illustration in one of your chapters, too. But I think the tremendous challenge is to try to get deeper than a slogan. These things are slogans. And you're right. I mean, it becomes even more difficult. It’s all of these slogans fit together, and you have to affirm all of them. By the way, you're right that they vary in length. Some of them are longer and have more… I saw one in a neighborhood near me at a store, and it’s, “We believe,” and all of those things you said and all these other things, and it says, “We affirm all beliefs.” And I just stood there, so puzzled, for a while. I’m like, “All? I think there's a couple floating around in my head right now that they wouldn't affirm.” “We affirm all beliefs.” Anyway, we’ll save that for Tylenol later. You say, early in your book…. Well, you just alluded to it: Some people want to take that sign and use a mallet and use it to hammer it down into their lawn, and other people want to take a mallet and destroy it. You say, “This book will offer a third approach, wielding a marker instead of a mallet.” Tell us what you mean by that.
The more that I have tried to understand about history, both in my country—I come from the UK, in case folks haven't figured that out at this point—and my sort of adoptive country—I'm married to a guy from Oklahoma, no less, and I've been living here for the last 13 years. And it seems to me that one of the most powerful arguments that people make today goes something like this. It says, “Just as you white Christians tried to use your Bibles in the ‘60s to stand against desegregation of schools and even basic equal rights for black Americans, so you're trying to use the Bible today to justify your homophobia and your refusal to acknowledge that love is love and to recognize marriage between people of the same sex.”
And it seems to me that, until we recognize that the first half of that statement is true, we're going to have no moral legs on which to stand as we address the second. So, until we're ready to say, “Do you know what? It is tragically, lamentably, and undeniably true that many in our tribe….” I mean, you and I, Randy, I'm guessing both of us, would describe ourselves as evangelicals and evidently, we’re both white. Unless we're willing to reckon with that reality, we don't have the moral legs to stand on today. But here's the irony: The problem with the ‘60s segregationists was not that they were too Christian. It was that they were not half Christian enough. It wasn't that they were reading their Bibles too much. It was that they were actually completely ignoring what the Bible tells us about love across racial difference.
And so the fix today—and this is where I want to talk about the marker—the fix today is not to not believe the Bible just like those folks in the 60s did but actually to get back to the Bible and to see that there we have both very clear boundaries around sex and a clear vision for what marriage is, and especially that marriage is designed from a Christian perspective to illustrate Jesus's love for his church. I sometimes say to non-Christian friends, “What we Christians believe about sex is actually much weirder than you think.” It's all about this message about God's love for His people in the Old Testament, Jesus love for His church in the New. That's why there is even such a thing as male and female and Christian marriage, as far as I can tell from the scriptures.
But at the same time, we need to recognize that the scriptures call us to radical love across racial, cultural, ethnic, national boundaries. And the reason that we actually find it hard to see that, often, in the pages of the scriptures is because our boundaries are different from those of Jesus’s contemporaries.
So when we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan, if we have heard of Samaritans at all, we immediately associate them with being good, right? That's what comes to mind. But for Jesus’s Jewish contemporaries, they were like the hated ethnic, cultural, religious enemies of the Jews, so we often just kind of miss the radical things that Jesus is saying, because we haven't translated them into our more contemporary sort of cultural setting. But doing that work. It doesn't result in a sort of diluting the message. Sometimes people say, “Well, you have to understand the Bible in its cultural context,” by which they mean, “I don’t really want to face up to the hard things it’s saying to me.” I think actually the more we understand it properly and real about how much it relates to ours, the more vital and incisive Jesus’s message will be for us today.
We all know people who are going through difficult times or, if we don't, just give it some time and sure enough, people we know will be going through difficult times. And when we hear that a friend is struggling, it can be easy to say, “I'm praying for you,” but it's a lot harder to know exactly what or how to actually pray. Nancy Guthrie has written a new book entitled I'm Praying for you: 40 Days of Praying the Bible for Someone Who is Suffering. And it is a magnificent resource that opens up a wealth of scripture to teach us how to pray for those people who are struggling. So please go to our Website and sign up, and we think it'll be really helpful.
I loved your book in that you were deeply digging into the contemporary situation, what people are saying about these issues, and then also deeply looking at the scriptures. That section about the Good Samaritan, the scandal of the Good Samaritan, you really dug into that in a very, very helpful way. There was a theme woven in all of the separate chapters of your book. And by the way, it's a remarkably short book. So, for those of you who are listening and thinking, “Wow, she really digs deeply.” She does, but she does it in 107 pages. So, this is a very accessible book, even though it digs deeply. But one of the themes tying the chapters together is that we need to be more biblical, not less biblical.
And then the other theme that you've alluded to, that all of these claims: Black lives matter. Love is love. They must have a Christian root. Otherwise, otherwise no lives matter. I mean, if there is no God, and we're not people created in the image of God, well, then nobody's life matters and nothing matters. And very, very quickly, you tell about the cartoon character that we've seen. The cartoon character runs off the cliff and then is sort of suspended in air for just a moment, and then they realize, “Oh, no! I'm no longer on solid ground.” And there they go. But that is kind of where our culture is in many places. We’ve run off the cliff, and we're still hoping to be able to stay up and affirm things like, “People deserve respect.” But I wonder if you have insight for us, because I think that that is absolutely true and it's what Christians must come to understand and non-Christians need to wrestle with. But I find it a difficult point to make. I find that I need to kind of come at it from several different angles several different times and have to resist the temptation to pound the table and say, “Don’t you see this? It's so obvious!” So, do you have any insight for us? Have you had some experiences where you've been able to get through?
Yeah, it's funny. When I was writing Confronting Christianity three years ago, I guess three and a half years ago, I was pregnant with my third child. So, Lucas is Confronting Christianity years old in my mind. I remember feeling a little bit daring for saying that really if we pull Christianity out of the moral edifice, everything comes crashing down. It’s the sort of thing where, in that book, I wanted to spend a lot of time saying things that I knew that both Christian and atheist experts would agree on, as well as things that only Christians believe. But to sort of start with, “Hey, this is kind of the agreed common ground. Whoever is looking at the evidence is going to say the same thing.” I remember feeling, like I said, just a little bit daring, like I was slightly pushing the boat out saying I think all moral proof kind of crashes down if we pull a Creator God out of the picture and especially if we pull Christian ethics out. A lot of things we think of as just basic moral common-sense crumble in our hands.
In between writing that book and writing The Secular Creed, I read a number of non-Christian authors, including a guy called Tom Holland, who is a British historian who wrote this amazing book called Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, where’s he’s looking back over 2,000 years of Christian history in the West. And he began that book very much not a Christian. He was always much more attracted to the Greek and Roman gods than to the sort of seemingly pathetic hero of Christianity. And by the end of the book, he had to conclude, as I was just saying, that actually the things we hold as self-evident moral truths are in fact specifically Christian beliefs. And that he, as a sort of agnostic, found that he had a lot of Christian beliefs that he just hadn't realized. He's at least very close now to identifying as a Christian himself.
And then another guy, Yuval Noah Harari, he wrote this massive sort of global bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, where he, an atheist Israeli historian who is just very stark in his statements when it comes to morality. He'll say things like, “Homo sapiens have no natural rights, just as chimpanzees, hyenas, and spiders have no natural rights.” And he says that the Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, but when we stop believing in the myths about God who created humans in His image, why would we keep believing these things? So, when I read Tom Holland, it was almost like he was sort of lamenting these beliefs that he wished he could ground in Christianity. And when I read Yuval Noah Harari, it was like almost flippant or not really recognizing the full implications of what he was saying. But I guess when I'm talking with non-Christian friends, rather than saying, “Here’s a Christian author who's arguing that actually all our moral beliefs come from Christianity, which feels a little bit like the guy in… I don’t know if you saw the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but the father who's like, “Tell me something and show me something, and I'll tell you why it's Greek,” kind of thing. I think sometimes Christians can seem like that. Say, “Hey, here are a couple of non-Christian historians who, they themselves are saying, actually, Christianity gave us these beliefs, and without Christianity we don't have that same foundation, which is of course, a point that Nietzsche was making back in the day. But I think it is actually increasingly evident to atheists and agnostic authors today who are very honest and looking at history and philosophy.
You know, as you're talking, I'm thinking. I’ve had this ongoing friendship conversation with a man who is now retired. He was a philosophy professor for many years at the university where I was doing campus ministry. And I wonder if he's read Sapiens or is at least familiar with it, because I think I want to say to him, “What do you think about that?” Because there is an intellectual coherence with this idea of, “Well, if there is no God, then there really is no basis for human rights and equality and all of these things that somehow feel innate in us. I wonder what he would say. So, I'm going to ask him. I need to try to ask it kindly. I mean, I think some of your arguments are so very, very helpful, but I'm afraid some of us may use it as a mallet. Like, “Aha! Gotcha!” and the challenge is to enter into real compassionate and loving conversations with people. And I think you model that very, very well for us. Let me ask this: Who did you write the book for?
The Secular Creed is the first and so far, only book I've written primarily for Christians.
I'd almost say primarily for my fellow white evangelicals, because I think there are certain things that are going to be more intuitive to our brothers and sisters of color, and I think what breaks my heart at the moment is that our historic failure really to reckon with our history of sin is sort of cutting our hands off right now. A pastor friend reached out a few weeks ago to ask if I would write a book on deconstruction because he felt like there was a need for that and he'd read Confronting Christianity and felt like I could be in a good position to do that. And The Secular Creed is kind of my book on deconstruction. Because I think what a lot of people are doing today is coming to realizations about the history of Christian complicity in racial injustice and feeling like everything unravels when they recognize that.
It’s a little bit like… I was talking with my daughters a couple of days ago. They’re nine and eleven. And we were talking about the problem of lying to your parents. And the biggest problem with lying to your parents, aside from the fact that it’s wrong to lie in general, is that if your parents don't believe that you're somebody who consistently tells you the truth, they won't be able to stand up for you, when the teacher accuses you of something that you didn't do for example. So, we were saying to them, “Look, if we know that you are consistently truthful and honest with us, we will go to bat for you anytime. If we know that actually you frequently lie to us about things you have or haven't done, we're not in a position to do that.”
And I think a lot of what's happening with deconstruction at the moment. I’m not saying that’s all that’s happening, but I think a lot of what's happening is Christians realizing that they have grown up with some lies in their bloodstream, actually some lies when it comes to Christian complicity in racial injustice, and when they sort of see that, they think, “Oh, well, now I can't trust anything.” And I would love instead for us to get better at doing the two things that Christians should be really good at doing, and that's both repenting and believing. I think sometimes we think, “Oh, gosh! If we start to actually recognize and repent of sin, both in our own lives and in our broader ecosystems and historic tribes, then we're somehow letting Jesus down.” I think the opposite is true. Jesus always said that his followers would be sinners. And you read the New Testament letters to the churches, you can see that in evidence, right? It should be no surprise to us that there's sin in our hearts, there's sin in our churches, there's sin in our history. But at the same time as repenting, we need to believe what the Bible says. And it takes as much careful biblical editing and gymnastics to make the Bible look like it aligns with racial segregation as it does to make the Bible look like it aligns with same-sex marriage.
When we were young, people would marvel at how we've grown if you hadn't seen them in a year, and, “Oh, how you've grown!” But can the same thing be said about spiritually as we're growing? Do people notice spiritual growth? Do we notice spiritual growth? We do think that there's some value in doing an annual spiritual checkup, and we've put together a resource on our website that has been very helpful to people, especially at this time of year, the beginning of the calendar year. So please check out Annual Spiritual Checkup. And there are questions to ask and things to look for that I think can be very helpful for you as you evaluate how you're doing in your spiritual growth.
You know, you've touched on so many things here. I love that you're going after… you're saying Christians should be very good at repenting, ongoing, and believing. I think a lot of us think of repent and believe is just the entrance into Christianity. So we need to repent of our sin and we need to believe that Jesus died for it. Yes, yes, but repenting, ongoing repentance, living a life of repentance, and believing, together, is the call that God is calling us to. And I often think about 1 John 1:9. It's surrounded by ways not to deal with sin, denying it, denying our sin nature, denying that we committed a sin, but in the center, it’s, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us.”
And I want us to see that as it's an ongoing lifestyle of confession of sin. For years, my wife and I were part of a church where we didn't have a time of corporate confession, and it was very uplifting, and you always felt very positive, and for a whole host of reasons we left. We went to another church, and the very first week there was a time of corporate confession. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is a novel thing. We haven't done this for several years.” And they gave us about 30 seconds for silent prayer of confession, and then we were to read a written prayer in the bulletin. And when the person up front started reading the prayer, I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Wait, I need more time. I’m out of practice. Could you give me a couple of hours?”
So I think your book does a very good job of calling us to both repenting and believing, still believing, so I think you've identified why a lot of people do walk away. They see the failures of the church, the inconsistencies, and then they throw the whole thing out. I'm wondering: Do you see your book as something to give to those who have walked away and to say, “Hey, I wonder if this could be a route of us discovering and coming back.” Do you see it as that kind of thing?
Yeah, I would hope so. I think one of the things that many Christians today who are wanting to hold on to their faith lack is a hopefulness about the future. And so, on the one hand, I would say, yeah, I would hope it would be a helpful book for people who have done some sort of process of deconstruction and then are either struggling to identify as Christians anymore or have actually walked away. My hope is that it also would be helpful to folks who aren't considering leaving the faith, but you feel like everything is sort of going to hell in a handcart.
I think there's a strong narrative, which says, “Once upon a time, America was a Christian country, and then in the sixties, there was the sexual revolution and abortion legalized across the country, and since then, we've had the gay rights movement and everything sort of unraveled before us.” And that either Christians can be left with a sense of deep hopelessness about the future because it's just going to keep unraveling, or with a sense of, “Gosh, we've got to batten down the hatches and fight back in a very aggressive, cultural war way. And whereas it's really hard to recognize, actually before the sixties, there were massive moral problems, not least segregation, and then if you want to go further back, slavery, where honestly, people say it's really hard to raise kids in today's sort of hostile environment, culturally hostile environment, to Christianity. I find it much easier raising my kids today, even in Cambridge, Massachusetts, public schools, than if I went back 100 years and had to raise kids where I was saying to them, “You know, you need to walk across the segregation lines.” Actually, I think that there was, in some ways at least, a more hostile environment just didn't realize it.
And so helping people think through those challenges in our past can be a really painful process, but I think it can actually result in a more hopeful view of the future to say, “Our job now is not to get back to some mythical past where there was Christian ethics across the board upheld. Our job is to build that future.”
And I personally feel extremely hopeful about the church globally and also in America. If we get back to the Bible, if we embrace the diversity that the Bible calls us to, if we hold firm to Christian sexual ethics, if we hold to the reality of male and female, which the transgender movement at the moment is, in really tragic and painful ways, seeking to undermine, but which is also sort of ironically finding itself in a big fight with traditional feminists, who want to say, “You know what? A woman is a biological female,” and women's rights are actually very much in under real attack from some of the latest moves of the transgender rights movement. So, there's a lot that's going on at the moment. I'm not saying it's an easy environment to be in, but it's one in which I think we Christians should have a lot of hope, so long as we're willing to both repent and believe.
That may be a perfect way for us to kind of bring this to a close. There's so much more to talk about, and the whole topic about transgender, which you address in the fifth chapter, is so very important, but we would need another whole podcast to go after that. I really appreciate that, in a number of places, what we're trying to say to people is, “Listen, we don't want to just argue about this, and we don't want to just say that you're wrong. I'm right.” It’s, “We're very concerned about people, and if they believe some of these slogans, it's really going to harm them.” There are some things about the feminist movement that we as Christians can agree with, but there's some things, and you address specifically about abortion. This is terribly harmful for people and society, but individual women in particular. And so, we've got to find both the words and the tone, I think, of expressing compassion.
Let me read from your last paragraph at the end of the book, and then if you want to add any more things. But I love the way you draw it together. You say, “Rather than shouting progressives who seek love and justice down, let's call them in with a Jesus song, His song of good news for the historically oppressed, His song of love across racial and ethnic difference, His song that summons men and women, married and single, young and old, weak and strong, joyful and hurting, rich and destitute, into eternal love with Him.” I think that's the banner under which we need to have these conversations with our neighbors, whether they have that sign out in front of their house or not. And I'm really grateful for the way you've encouraged us and equipped us for this task. So, any last thoughts you want to chime in before we say goodbye?
Yeah. Only I love what Peter says, in 1 Peter he says, “Always be ready to give a reason for the hope you have. Do so with gentleness and respect.”
And holding on to those two things, gentleness and respect, as we engage with non-believing friends, it is so important, and we're not being faithful to the Lord if we don't do that. It's very clear in His word that that's what we should do. And seeking lovingly, with gentleness, respect, patience, concern, to share the truth with them. And not the truth that we ourselves are righteous, which is, in fact, the opposite of the gospel, but the truth that Jesus is the only source of righteousness for any of us.
Well said. Well said. Well, I'm so very grateful for your ministry, your writing. More books to come. May the Lord bless you with strength for that. To our listeners, I really want to encourage you to get a hold of Rebecca's books, plural, especially The Secular Creed, but Confronting Christianity and then also the adaptation for teens, 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity. These are really helpful resources to get us past the slogans. So, we'll put some of those links in the show notes below, and we hope that all of our resources at the C.S. Lewis Institute help you live this life out in our world today, with all of the challenges, but all of the promises that God also gives us to strengthen us. May God bless you.